Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Submission by Amy Waldman

Amy Waldman, a former co-chief of the South Asia bureau of The New York Times, had an interesting idea for an novel: What would happen if the winner of a competition for the 9/11 Ground Zero Memorial design turned out to be Muslim?

The novel begins with the jurors debating the merits of the anonymous submissions, finally settling on the design of a garden. Only when Paul Rubin, the patrician, former CEO of a major bank and responsible for the competition's management, opens the envelope that identifies the garden's designer does anyone involved realize they've chosen one Mohammad Khan's design.

Khan is an entirely secular, American architect, raised in Virginia, an employee of a top New York architectural firm (that did not know he was entering the competition). He is in his mid-thirties, single, and with a best friend in the firm is already planning to establish his own practice. Winning such a prestigious commission, of course, will make his name.

Awarding a Muslim's design for the Ground Zero memorial would also—in the view of many good Americans—desecrate the memories of those who died in the tragedy. In fact, some can see the garden as honoring the Muslim terrorists. It's a situation in which no one can be neutral.

And in The Submission, they're not. Waldman has a large cast and tells her story from several points of view: Mohammad Khan who entered the competition in good faith, won fairly, and is now being attacked for being the child of immigrant parents who are almost as secular as their son. Claire Burwell, the wealthy widow of a senior executive killed on 9/11, who fights for the garden's design. Rubin, friend of the governor and mayor, trying to control and maintain reason in a uncontrollable and unreasonable situation. Sean Gallagher, brother of a Brooklyn fireman who was killed, and for whom stopping the garden becomes a quest. Alyssa Spier, a young reporter on the make, who breaks the story of the Muslim's design and becomes a tabloid star. Asama Anwar, an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant, whose husband died in the attack. Mix together with a female NY State governor with her eye on national office; a Fox-news-style talk show host; a very modern, very secular, very sexy female lawyer with an Iranian background; a paternal Bangladeshi who can interpret American life and English; a Muslim American Coordinating Council, and more, and the stew is almost too rich.

The situation is interesting, the writing is professional, the ending is a stretch but plausible, but I found I was able to put The Submission down and felt no real compulsion to pick it back up. Part of the problem may well be my reading habits and taste. Part of it may be that 9/11 is so traumatic that no book can deal with it adequately. Part of it may be the challenge of making such a diverse cast of characters be both compelling individuals and representatives of the difference forces at play in the situation. While Mohammad Khan is hardly a cardboard symbol around which the others revolve, I don't feel Waldman gives us enough to make him live off the page.

Nevertheless, The Submission is a better-than-average novel. Waldman devotes herself to important questions and themes, one of which is that frightened people do terrible things. A lesson about which it's worth being reminded.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

It is hard to believe that A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a first novel by someone younger than 30. True, Anthony Marra received an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has won a number of awards: a Whiting, a Pushcart Prize, the Narrative Prize. the National Book Critics Circle's inaugural John Leonard Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction, and the inaugural Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award. My opinion: He deserves them all.

The novel, a work of research and invention, is set in Chechnya and the characters move between a village and Grozny, the capital. It covers five days in 2004 during the second Chechnen War with flashbacks and—interestingly—flash forwards. The three main characters are an eight-year-old girl, Havaa, who watches Russian soldiers abduct her father and burn down her house; Akhmed, a Muslim GP, who rescues Havaa from the forest and takes her to Grozny and a ruined hospital where Sonja is the only doctor left.

The novel's title is a Russian medical dictionary's definition of "life." The theme is how to live in a world of random violence, torture, land mines, and death. I know, it does not sound appealing, but Marra's language, feeling for his characters, and story carried me along. Here is a sample of the writing:

"And Grozny appeared, gray on the horizon asthe road devolved to a basin of broken masonry and trampled apartment blocks. Cigarette kiosks slouched on the sidewalk. Akhmed wished he had taken paper and a pencil with him to capture his first trip to the city. Sonja brought the jeep to a crawl as they tipped into a crater. The street rose and disappeared somewhere above them, the whole world of dark wet earth, the tires spinning and reaching the lip. No scent drifted through the open window but the engine burn. No sewage or raw waste. Nothing. A flattened bureau basked in the sun, knobs pried out. The flicker of an oil-drum fire three blocks out came as a small, welcome signal of human habitation. Behind the flame a man turned a rotisserie fashioned from clothes hangers and a gardening stake on which was impaled a pink fist of flesh. . . ."

I had not realized as I read the book that Marra is not Chechnen and not Russian (although he spent a college semester in Russia). He told The New York Times “Research is not an obstacle, something to be frightened of. It can be one of the real joys of writing. Someone once said, ‘Don’t write what you know, write what you want to know.’But to make a book convincing, it’s less important that the right tree be in the right place than that the characters are emotionally real. I did the best I could to make the environment and the setting as realistic as possible, but I hope it’s the characters and the emotional reality that make the book true.” They do. They do.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Updike by Adam Begley

I hardly need to laud Adam Begley's biography of John Updike; the reviews I've seen have been universally positive. I could add to the praise, but what would be the point? Begley has taken a subject who spent most of his working life at a typewriter, was not alcoholic, did not do drugs, was never arrested, was not abused as a child and published almost 500 fascinating pages about his life.
Rather, let me point out a few points that struck me.

Updike was enormously productive: more than 20 novels, several hundred short stories, eight collections of poetry, book reviews, art criticism, and more. He did all this without an agent. shepherding his works through the press himself, read voraciously, carried on voluminous correspondence (invaluable sources for a biographer), played golf twice a week, volunteered for numerous civic duties, and enjoyed an agitated social and romantic life, and "also found time to wrestle the vines off the roof of the barn or to fit a new door in the living room." Would that I were so productive.

Updike, it seems, existed on two levels: his actual, lived experience while simultaneously recording the experience as future material. Begley describes the scene when Updike tells his children at the dinner table that he and his first wife Joan are getting divorced, a scene Updike used in a short story he wrote a couple of weeks later: "Taking a step back from the fiction (in this case, bare fact artfully arranged), we see Updike's tears flowing at the same prodigious rate, with the same range of significance, and more: the added amazement that he could sit weeping through this traumatic meal and navigate its equally traumatic denouement, all the while gathering up and filing away the detailed impressions that would later give life to a short story." Even as he was truly anguished, he was watching himself being anguished.

Of course, what else can a creative writer draw on but experience? Research will take you only so far and knowledgeable readers can recognize the difference between researched and felt material. Updike himself said nine months into his second marriage, "One of the problems of being a fiction writer is that of gathering experience. The need for seclusion, and the respectability that goes with some success, both are very sheltering—they cut you off from painful experience. We all want to avoid painful experience, and yet painful experience is your chief resource as a writer."

But why write fiction at all? Updike and Tom Wolfe in a dust-up gave two different reasons. Wolfe wrote that the aim of fiction was to expose the "status structure of society." The individual matters only because of his "intimate and inextricable relation to the society around him," said Wolfe. As Begley comments, "The inner life of a creature who stands on just two feet hardly figures in Wolfe's scheme...."

In contrast, Updike wrote that "Fiction is nothing less than the subtlest instrument for self-examination and self-display that Mankind has ever invented." He denied that fiction should be read for the kind of information journalists report: "Unlike journalism . . . fiction does not give us facts snug in their accredited truth . . . we make fiction true as we read it."

Certainly anyone who enjoys Updike's writings should read this biography. Anyone who is serious about his or her own writing should also read it. (I found Begley's chapters roiling my own memories and made notes for half a dozen new stories.) And finally anyone who enjoys a masterful biography of an interesting life should read it.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Damn Love by Jasmine Beach-Ferrara

Damn Love is an interesting collection of nine stories. They are linked by place—they are mostly set in San Francisco and Durham, North Carolina—and by characters. A minor character in one story will be the protagonist in another. Each story, however, stands alone and can be read in random order. You don't need to know, for example, that Weasel, the drug addict protagonist in the eighth story, is a patient of Ruth, the doctor protagonist in the first story. But because characters turn up in different roles in different stories, the book gains in richness and resonance.

This is Jasmine Beach-Ferrara's first book. She has an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, but does not suffer from what I consider the MFA-disease: glorious sentences in stories that have no content (or about young people in dead-end jobs and dead-end romances). She is a minister in the United Church of Christ and the executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, which promotes LGBT rights in the South. On the evidence of Damn Love she has already had a full and interesting life.

The main characters, male and female, are lesbian and gay. The stories evoke the ecstasy and pain of love—love unrequited, love requited, love lost, damn love. They involve love between two women, between two men, between parents and children, and between siblings. And it's never easy. Here's how one story begins:

"In early May, Doctors Reddi and Lombardo shocked each other by confessing that they had fallen in love with the same woman. That Reddi and Lombardo were best friends and that this woman, Erin Champion, had been married to another woman for six years meant that it would be a difficult season for all of them. They knew this, and yet they could not help themselves."

In some stories, the main character tells her or his own story. In others, Beach-Ferrara uses the third person point of view. In all the stories, the characters struggle with what they want, what they can get, and what they have to settle for—just like real life.

One of the stories I found especially strong in a strong collection is "Love the Soldier." Keisha, who is gay, is a cop and a member of the National Guard about to be deployed to Iraq with her MP unit. She and her partner are trying to finally put away a Durham drug dealer and when Keisha is off duty she is trying to deal with her parents. Her mother doesn't want her to go, and if she has to, to get office duty. Her father is a preacher who opposes the war. Toward the end of the story, Keisha and her mother (and 1,000 parishioners) attend a Sunday service in which her father preaches about the war and his daughter's involvement in it. The lesson: As one should hate the sin but love the sinner, hate the war but love the soldier. Powerful, persuasive, and moving.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

This is an extraordinary novel for several reasons. First, as a physical object. The publisher, the Other Press, has produced a work that is a pleasure to hold and read—paperback two volumes in a boxed set on fine paper with an attractive typeface and a number of full-page black-and-white photographs of scenes in and around the place in Japan where the novel is set. It includes a map and a family trees of the two key families so that Western readers can keep the name and relationship straight.

Second, the translation from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter is lively and engaging. It does not read like a translation. (Occasionally in other books, it is possible to recognize where the translator nodded.) The author, Minae Mizumura, was born in Tokyo, moved with her family to Long Island when she was twelve. She studied French Literature at Yale College and after finishing her M.Phil. program, returned to Japan to devote herself to writing. She's taught modern Japanese literature at Princeton, the University of Michigan, and Stanford, and was a resident novelist in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

Finally, the novel itself is wonderful. A True Novel, as Mizumura acknowledges in the first section of the book, is a retelling of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights in postwar Japan, featuring a half-Chinese, half-Japanese Heathcliff, Taro Asama. We have a Japanese Catherine, Yoko Utagawa, and a "Nelly" Dean: Fumiko, a maid who tells most of the story. But while there are superficial resemblances to Bronte, which added to my pleasure in the book, A True Novel is its own story, told in its own time (roughly 1945 - 2005) with its own characters and its own setting.

The book begins as the narrator, who shares all of Mizumura's history, tells us about the rise of a young Japanese man, Taro Asama, she knew in New York as a child. Taro shows up in New York as an immigrant in the late 1950s and finds work as a chauffeur. He learns English, progresses from driver to camera repairman to medical equipment salesman to, eventually, venture capitalist.

167 pages into the first volume, a young Japanese man tells the novelist about his experiences on vacation in Karuizawa, town that's been a resort area for Westerners and wealthy Japanese since the 19th Century. While the young man was in Karuizawa, he heard the story of a wealthy family from a middle-aged woman, Fumiko, who had been the family's maid and seen Taro Asama and Yoko Utagawa play together and grow up together as children. On  page 307 of Volume I, Fumico begins to tell her story, the entire history of the children, their parents, siblings, and interactions.

Because of the novel's sweep, we see characters grow up, grow old, and (some of them) die. And we see it against the background of Japan's changes since The Great Pacific War. Rustic Karuizawa is turned into supermarkets, convenience stores, and summer homes for corporate executives. And through it all is the impossible but irresistible love of Taro for Yoko.

The two volumes are 854 pages. Once I was caught up, I didn't want it to end.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

How many books to print?

I recently had an interesting exchange with a member of the LinkedIn Books and Writers group who asked the question above. He pointed out that the answer depends. "There are two factors that should be considered when deciding upon the optimum inventory level: projected volume and velocity of book sales."

I responded by asking why a self-publishing writer would print any books at all. Why not use a print-on-domand (POD) service?

He said there are many reasons for a small initial print run. "First, you can reduce the printing cost significantly so you become more profitable. Serious publishers need books to send for reviews, samples, and to have on hand to fill small orders quickly. In addition, most retailers won't take on POD books, nor will most reviewers review them."

I asked him if his original question should therefore be one for a publisher. It's not a question for self-published writers. After all, no commercial publisher is going to consult with the writer about the initial print run. If you are an individual writer pretending to be an independent publisher and having your books printed and bound by a job printer, I can see the point of the question. But how many retailers and reviewers today are fooled by that charade? So, again, why not use a POD publisher and order enough copies to send out reviews, samples, and to fill small orders quickly?

Part of the problem he pointed out is that we were talking about different things. "I think the confusion is in the definition of POD publishing and digital printing—they are not the same thing. POD is a means to publish that may use digital printing. My point is addressed to the more serious author/publisher who uses digital or offset printing and not POD. That author has a much better chance of selling books more profitably (without any charade) than one with a POD publisher. Those currently using a POD publisher could use your strategy—it is not wrong, just not as profitable. There is no one way to market books, and the author is always the promoter, regardless of what publisher is used"

I asked about the difference in profitability. As an example, if an author can buy 50 copies of a 350-page, perfect-bound, paperback with a four-color full bleed cover for $257 from a POD publisher, what would the same number of copies of such a book cost from a digital or offset printer?

His answer was unusually helpful: "Your unit cost is $5.14—if your book is $14.95 and you sell through a distributor (trade or non-bookstore) they will take 60 - 65%. If they take 60% ($5.98) you make $ .84 per book. If you print 1000 (a reasonable minimum quantity) the unit cost is $3.85, so you make $2.13 per book. If you sell 120 books you have made more than the $257. Or, look at it differently. If you sell 1000 books and print them your way, 50 at a time, your cost is $5140 and your profit is $840. Print 1000 at a time for $3850 and your profit is $2130. Which do you prefer?"

There seems to be some confusion here between revenue and profit (what's left after you've paid for the books) but I pointed out that the unknown in this example is how many of those 1,000 copies the author will be able to sell through a distributor, website, personal appearances, etc. Using his figures, it looks as if the author would have to sell 644 copies just to break even ($5.98 x 644 = $3851).

The example also ignores all other costs of buying 1,000 copies of a book: the cost of the money tied up in inventory, the value of the time spent fulfilling orders, the cost of storage if nothing free is available. And every book never sold pushes up the total cost. (I'm ignoring the costs of marketing, promotion, shipping, which of course you can't.)

So yes, selling 1,000 copies of a book earns that nets $2.13 a copy is more profitable than selling 1,000 copies of a book that nets 84¢ a copy. But how many self-published authors sell as many as 644 copies of their book? The figure that's thrown around—and I would love to see something more authoritative—is that the average self-published book sells fewer than 150 copies. I've never met a self-published author who's sold out a 1,000-copy print run but I've met any number who have cartons of unsold books in the garage.

We parted amiably: "We have both stated our positions—if others are following this thread they can use our calculations as they apply to their circumstances and make their choices. But a serious self-publisher with good content and quality, aggressive marketing and sales to non-bookstore buyers can easily sell 644 books. If you don't think you can do that, then your model works fine."

I think many (most?) writers thinking of self-publishing their books are blinded by hope. They do think they can easily sell 644 books ... 1,000 books ... 10,000 books. Virtually all of them are wrong.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

What about beta readers?

An acquaintance asks, "How valuable are beta readers? Who should they be? Do you send them a manuscript or an e-mail attachment? Should your work be formatted and professionally edited?"

My opinion: It depends. I am part of a writer's group that meets once a month. They have been reading and critiquing my current novel chapter by chapter which is in manuscript format (double spaced, Times New Roman, etc.).

Once they and I have finished working and reworking the chapters, an editor goes through the entire MS looking for problems the writer's group missed. Once I've dealt with those problems, I format the book into what are essential proof pages, have Staples print and bind three copies, two-sided pages, and ask three beta readers read it as if it were a book--looking for anything/everything that needs attention: typos, bad breaks, widows, missing little words (of, an, in, at), plus the story as a whole experience.

My theory is that the cleaner these pages are, the more they look like the pages that will be printed, the easier it is for beta readers to spot problems. 

I think beta readers should be people you trust (a recurring fear among amateur writers is that someone is going to steal their work), who are regular book readers, who can read closely, and who are secure enough to tell you when you're running off the tracks. My beta readers are invaluable.